Eevery week I get emails from people wanting to tell me their horror stories about dating apps. Sometimes it’s about a single night of hell; and sometimes it’s about a relationship that started on a dating app and ended in a hellish place – often because their significant other was still, secretly, on dating apps. Betrayal is a common theme, unsurprisingly, at a time when these apps have made the range of options for potential partners seemingly endless, and the ability to access them almost instantly.
I’ve been a critic of the dating app industry almost since its inception, a role I never intended to take on. When Tinder launched its mobile app ten years ago this year, I had just started writing a story for Vanity Fair about teenage girls and how social media affected their lives. I was talking to a 16-year-old girl in the Grove, a shopping center in Los Angeles, when she told me about a new app, Tinder. She showed me how she was going about it, matching and talking to men in their twenties and thirties, and how some of them had sent her sexual messages and nude photos.
The culture of dating apps that has evolved over the decade since can be very rough, as anyone who has ever been on it (myself included) can tell you. The most outrageous and offensive behavior has been normalized. We’re talking about everything from demands for nudes to demands for sex; rude comments about a person’s appearance or communication style; and of course ghosts. None of what I’m saying here is news, though I was one of the first to write about it, in Vanity Fair in 2015, in a story titled Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse — a piece that angered Tinder so much that it became infamous more than tweeted to me 30 times in one night.
And yet, despite the backlash that story met, the revelations have now become commonplace, part of our overall understanding of the disruptions dating apps have caused. After I did that story, I went on to explore the ways dating apps are rife with sexism, racism, and transphobia, just like many other journalists. And yet, the use of dating apps has only increased over the past 10 years, especially during the pandemic, which has seen a huge increase in the number of users and the hours they spend on these platforms.
Some people who contact me say they do this because they feel like they can’t tell anyone else – including the dating app companies themselves, who are notoriously slow to respond to complaints from their users (if they ever do) , even complaints about disturbing sexual violence. There hasn’t been much movement toward reforming these apps, and pop culture images are often sunny and romanticized.
My first impression of dating apps in that LA mall was that they were something dangerous for kids and teens – which they clearly still are. Tinder doesn’t officially allow underage users to interact with adults, but kids have been doing this since it was launched, and still do. Kids are on Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Hinge and many other dating platforms – it’s easy to create a fake profile and log in, and there are still no effective age checks, despite calls from various quarters. Even a dating app designed specifically for teens ages 13 to 17, Yubo — which has millions of users around the world — has been called out for inappropriate content and harassment.
Why do people keep using these apps, if they’ve made dating such a hell? (Even more hell, I’d say, than it always was.) There are a few reasons for this, I think: One is that the dating app industry has overrun the dating landscape to the point where many people feel no other is way to meet someone. They did this by making their apps look easy, by promising love with just a few swipes. They did it by eliminating the need to bring themselves out personally.
Another reason is that dating app users have the same hope as millions of gamblers who enter casinos every day, knowing that the odds are high and the house always wins. And so it is with dating apps, which, while promising to find their users lasting connections, offer no data to back it up — in fact, data from outside sources suggests that most people on dating apps don’t have lasting relationships. or find marriages through these platforms.
But people keep swiping, scrolling, swiping, sometimes for hours a day, like they can’t stop – and many really can’t. These apps are designed to be addictive. “It’s kind of a slot machine,” Jonathan Badeen, the co-founder of Tinder and inventor of the swipe, told me in my HBO documentary Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.
Turning love into a casino game was never a very romantic idea, but it has turned out to be very lucrative for dating app companies – although perhaps at our expense.